The devil and his puported powers
July 12, 2011 9:29 AM   Subscribe

In Luke 4:5 - 4:7, the devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world, and says something to the effect of, "I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours." Within the Christian tradition, is there a consensus about whether the devil was lying, or whether he actually had the power to grant this boon? Do different branches of Christianity have different answers to that question? I'm looking for the authoritative opinions of Christian leaders/philosophers/theologists here, not the opinions of individual Christians of metafilter.
posted by Greg Nog to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Not sure if you know about bible.cc, but if you go here and scroll down to "parallel commentaries" you've got Gill's and some other ones. You might find what you're looking for there. I'll see if I have any relevant stuff in my books when I get home from work.
posted by griphus at 9:38 AM on July 12, 2011


John Wesley writes on Luke 4:6:
I give it to whomsoever I will — Not so, Satan. It is God, not thou, that putteth down one, and setteth up another: although sometimes Satan, by God's permission, may occasion great revolutions in the world.
Matthew Henry writes:
All Satan's promises are deceitful; and if he is permitted to have any influence in disposing of the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them, he uses them as baits to insnare men to destruction.
Of course, I think it's almost an irrelevant point because in traditional Christianity, to the best of my understanding, Jesus is not capable of sinning, the same way that you or I are not capable of flying.
posted by Electrius at 9:38 AM on July 12, 2011


"It was not true, of course, that the devil had really been given authority over the world’s earthly kingdoms as he claimed – we are reminded in John 8:44 that he is ‘a liar and the father of lies’." From an article on The Temptation of Jesus by Jack Mahoney SJ, Emeritus Professor of Moral and Social Theology in the University of London and author of The Making of Moral Theology: A Study of the Roman Catholic Tradition, Oxford, 1987.
posted by jedicus at 9:39 AM on July 12, 2011


The popular teaching among 2 different evangelical denominations that I was heavily involed with (The Church of God and the Assemblies of God) held that Adam's sin turned the earthly domain over to Satan's control until the Second Coming of Jesus, at which time control would be taken back for the Millenial Reign of Christ, after which the earth would be detroyed. According to this teaching, this is why we will continue to have sin and wars and suffering on earth the Second Coming.

Exact chapter and verse for all this? Couldn't tell you.
posted by The Deej at 9:43 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course, I think it's almost an irrelevant point because in traditional Christianity, to the best of my understanding, Jesus is not capable of sinning, the same way that you or I are not capable of flying.

Well, of course he was capable of sinning. If he wasn't then he didn't have free will. If he didn't have free will, he wasn't a man. And one of the foundations of almost every branch of at least modern Christianity is that he was both fully God and fully Man.

Think about it. If he was tempted to sin, but wasn't capable of sinning, then there's no actual temptation, right?

Not that I'm saying there's a consistent logic to everything in the Bible, but that seems to be a big important part of understanding any of it.
posted by inturnaround at 9:49 AM on July 12, 2011 [11 favorites]


I remember an AoG minister often referring to Satan as "prince of this world." A quick wikipedia lookup for Satan points to John 12:31, 14:30 and also 2 Corinthians 4:4, but I have a meeting to get to...
posted by kimota at 9:50 AM on July 12, 2011


As I am given to understand (perhaps imperfectly) by my resident biblical scholar, there was an expectation in Jesus' time that the Messiah would be a nationalist leader who would restore an independent Jewish state centered on Jerusalem.

This passage is one of a number in the New Testament that seem designed to forestall and preempt that expectation, and yet still allow Jesus to claim to be the Messiah.
posted by jamjam at 9:55 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, of course he was capable of sinning. If he wasn't then he didn't have free will. If he didn't have free will, he wasn't a man. And one of the foundations of almost every branch of at least modern Christianity is that he was both fully God and fully Man.

"Capability" here is a very complicated concept. Many Christians have an Augustinian compatibilist account of free will rather than a liberatarian account that requires the ability to have been able to do other than what one did.
posted by Jahaza at 10:24 AM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


If you read Calvin's commentary on the passage, he seems to suggest not.

Origen and Cyril of Alexandria appear to agree, though Origen in particular comes up with a fairly unique interpretation there.

As far as I know, the general consensus appears to be that Satan's promises, not only here but in the entire narrative, were deceptions.
posted by valkyryn at 10:41 AM on July 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Satan is called "the god of this world" in 2 Corinthians 4:4.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 11:02 AM on July 12, 2011


Satan/Lucifer/the Devil's role in Judaism and Christianity has changed, or been "nuanced", over the millenia.

Some scholars cite this as a late instance of his role as the tester: God's own personal Devil's Advocate (advocatus diaboli, in the original Church definition of that phrase). In that case, it's moot whether he was capable or not of delivering upon his promises; his only purpose was to test Jeshua ben Joseph's mettle.

IOW, it's a bit like me saying, as Prosecuting Attorney, "If you tell us where you hid the bodies, we'll drop the counterfeiting charge." In the end, all I care about is enticing cooperation, for my real job (convicting you of multiple murders, or for Satan, preventing mankind's salvation) will be easy if you (Jesus) do.
posted by IAmBroom at 11:05 AM on July 12, 2011


Of course, I think it's almost an irrelevant point because in traditional Christianity, to the best of my understanding, Jesus is not capable of sinning, the same way that you or I are not capable of flying.

Well, of course he was capable of sinning. If he wasn't then he didn't have free will. If he didn't have free will, he wasn't a man. And one of the foundations of almost every branch of at least modern Christianity is that he was both fully God and fully Man.


Yeah, theologically it's much more complex than that, as others have said, and different traditions even with protestantism can take rather disparate views.

Growing up in an evangelical environment, the fairly ubiquitous understanding of this was that Satan was lying, making it all that simpler for Jesus to deny him, because it was essentially already 'his.'

But yeah, there is an academic debate to be had w/r/t issues of will (not only the will of a God but the will or lack thereof of the faithful, etc. This was an especially huge issue in the years after the reformation and something dealt with by everyone from Calvin to Leibniz and Spinoza). And yeah, IAmBroom is also right to bring up that the idea of the Devil comes from an amalgamation of passages and has evolved a lot over time.

But yes, the short answer is, in the way most fundamentalist Christians in our time understand Satan and the relationship of Jesus to God and to will, Satan was essentially offering a false promise.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:13 AM on July 12, 2011


Many years ago I received bible study tapes from an evangelical church, and I remember at least one sermon in which the pastor claimed that Satan did have authority over the earth... temporarily, anyway, until the Second Coming in which Jesus would defeat him and take his place as the ruler of the world. Christ had actually defeated Satan by his death and resurrection, and so he is now "rightfully" the ruler of the world even though Satan is still in charge until his eventual ousting.

This was not presented as some radical new idea, this pastor acted like this was common knowledge. The church was fairly mainstream evangelical, the pastor's background was Presbyterian and he was something of a Calvinist.

Below are a couple of links that explain things the way I was taught:

Satan's Authority

Satan's Kingdom
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:15 AM on July 12, 2011




Part of what's going on here is that Christianity has long viewed Satan to have some power over the earth, the nature of which changed with the resurrection. Some scholars view Satan's offer here as thus not being entirely false, as Satan could have potentially been offering Christ just that control which he did have. But that's not how Satan seems to spin things, i.e. he says "These are all mine, and if you worship me, I'll give them to you." This is a broader claim than saying "I have some measure of control here, which can be yours." When a half truth is presented as a whole truth, it becomes a lie.
posted by valkyryn at 11:43 AM on July 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


What valkyryn said.

We're told he comes "only to kill, steal, and destroy" (emphasis mine); his power or authority rests in the fact that we believe his lies. If there was any measure of authority granted from on high, it surely didn't override the fact that everything he promised already belonged to Christ.

"I wasn't banished from Heaven, I was assigned to govern Earth." if you dig.
posted by rahnefan at 12:37 PM on July 12, 2011


Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the evidence indicates Satan did have that power and this is why the entire system of things is corrupt. Here are some quotes on this scripture from various Witness literature:

We can learn from these temptations of Jesus. They show, for example, that the Devil is not a mere quality of evil, as some people claim, but that he is a real, invisible person. The temptation of Jesus also shows that all the world governments are the Devil’s property. For how could the Devil’s offering them to Christ have been a real temptation if they were not really his? The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived

Jesus did not deny that the kingdoms of the world were Satan’s to give. Later, he called Satan “the ruler of this world.” (John 12:31; 16:11) Toward the end of the first century C.E., the apostle John wrote: “We know we originate with God, but the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19) This does not mean that Jehovah has relinquished his sovereignty over the earth. Remember that Satan, when offering Jesus rulership over the political kingdoms, stated: “I will give you all this authority . . . because it has been delivered to me.” (Luke 4:6) Satan exercises authority over the kingdoms of the world only by God’s permission.
Watchtower 5/1/1996

Satan claimed to possess authority over all the kingdoms, or governments, of this world. Did Jesus deny this claim? No. In fact, he confirmed it on another occasion by referring to Satan as “the ruler of the world.”—John 14:30.
According to the Bible, Satan is a wicked angel possessing great power. The Christian apostle Paul associates Satan with “the wicked spirit forces” and speaks of them as “the world rulers of this darkness.” (Ephesians 6:11, 12) Moreover, the apostle John said that “the whole world is lying in the power of the wicked one.” (1 John 5:19) The Bible book of Revelation states that Satan is “misleading the entire inhabited earth.” (Revelation 12:9) In symbolic terms, Revelation also depicts Satan as a dragon that gives to the world’s political system “its power and its throne and great authority.”—Revelation 13:2.
Watchtower 7/15/1995
posted by Danila at 12:46 PM on July 12, 2011


When discussing the role of Satan in Christianity it is essential to remember that the religion was born during a period of debate within Judaism about his role there. It is clear that pre-Roman Jews believed that Satan was not some great rebelling force in opposition to God, but instead was an agent of God in opposition to us. Most Jews today have returned to this view (expounded here). However, at the beginning of Christianity, Zoroastrianism was at the hight of its popularity and influencing the religions around it, including much of Judaism and the early Church.* The Zoroastrian cosmos revolves around two equally powerful Gods, a good and a bad one, and reading the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) it really is possible to interpret it both ways. It is fundamentally unclear.

With this in mind, if you take a closer look at the New Testament it becomes obvious that the Gospels are, frustratingly, just as vague. Paul plainly preaches the Zoroastrian inspired cosmology, but not once uses the name Satan. Revelations, however, does take clear sides using the name to describe a powerful force rebelling against both God and the interests of man.

*If you think this is weird Josephus, the primary contemporary historian of the age, talks about the Pharisees believing in reincarnation.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:42 PM on July 12, 2011


Another vote for mainstream evangelical churches believing Satan had such power, until the resurrection. There is no 'dogma' on this in the evangelical church, so people will disagree how fettered on unfettered this was.
The general view on the fall of man (Adam and Eve sinning at the instigation of Satan) is that man has given his dominion of the earth to the devil. But man didn't have unfettered dominion either. More like caretakership. And abdicating that caretakership to the Devil isn't exactly a grant of power. But the evangelical view would be that because man yielding whatever authority he had, and because God wouldn't take it back unilaterally, the Devil gets it by default. But only to the extent man had such authority in the first place.
For example, there would be varying views as to what you think the conversations between Satan and God in Job imply about how much the Devil has power to physically harm and cause calamity.
TLDR: the evangelical church would generally say the Devil had as much power over the earth that man yielded in the fall. Which is not to say absolute power.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 4:24 PM on July 12, 2011


Within Christianity, there is not even consensus that Satan exists in any literal sense, nor that there is a Hell. It's not a small group that doesn't believe in a literal Satan, either. From one poll hosted on the Religious Tolerance website:

Satan is an evil symbol, not a living entity (1997)
Americans that agree: 62%
Born-again Christians that agree: 52%
posted by Houstonian at 5:59 PM on July 12, 2011


« Older Tasteful personal care items for a guy.   |   What's a good way to package professional... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.